12 Years a Slave: An Intense Look at Slavery

By Tom Kaspereen / Staff Writer

The subject of slavery in American cinema is often brushed over.  Although there have been many films detailing the Civil War and the political struggle for abolition, “12 Years a Slave” is one of the few films that dives into the dark subject matter with unflinching intensity and attention to detail.  In only his third directorial outing, British director Steve McQueen points the camera squarely at the horrors of slavery, and does not turn away.  It may be difficult to watch sometimes, but “12 Years a Slave” is an incredibly powerful and rewarding viewing experience for those ready to take the plunge.

The film, based on the autobiography of the same name, tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in the north in 1841.  He enjoys a pleasant family life with his wife and children in New York and is renowned for his skill as a violinist. However, this peaceful life becomes devasted when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, having been tricked by two men pretending to be interested in hiring him for a job as a musician.

The film follows Northup for the next 12 years of his life, as he attempts to survive in the harsh and terrifying world of slavery in the American south.  Although a somewhat decent owner runs the first plantation he is forced to work in, he is soon transferred to a plantation run by the cruel Edwin Epps, played by actor Michael Fassbender.  It is here that the bulk of the film's events take place.

Perhaps the thing that stands out the most in “12 Years a Slave,” other than the subject matter itself, is the performances from the cast.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic as Northup, delivering a sensitive and complex performance from beginning to end.  A less experienced actor would most likely have harmed the film by being overly melodramatic, but Ejiofor never hits this pitfall.

Through his subtle acting, the audience is drawn into the highs and lows of Northup’s emotional state, which changes from hope, horror, and hopelessness several times throughout the film. Because Northup comes from a background that is so radically different from the slave lifestyle he is forced into living early on in the film, the audience can easily feel the events of the film from Northup’s perspective as he enters this cold alien world.

The performance of Lupita Nyong’o as the slave Patsy in the film has drawn universally rave reviews from critics, as well an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Nyong’o does an amazing job portraying a truly tortured character, and it is through her that the film is able to more thoroughly explore some of the terrifying prospects of daily slave life. This is a person that has lost all hope, and Nyong’o is more than capable of portraying this to the audience.  It is Patsy’s relationship with Epps that is one of the more disturbing elements of the film, demonstrating how many slaveholders used their power for more than just unpaid labor and unjust punishment.

One performance that has been somewhat overlooked this past awards season is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps.  Fassbender portrays one of the most unlikable characters in recent memory; there is not a single scene where this character is not malicious.  As a brutal and unforgiving slaveholder, Fassbender never makes the character into someone the audience can feel sympathy for, but he also never allows Epps to become a caricature.  This is a testament to both the script and Fassbender’s acting skills.

Screenwriter John Ridley is equally as deserving of praise as any member of the cast.  The dialog between the main characters sounds far more sophisticated and old-fashioned than what the audience may be used to.  The result is a script that reads less like a modern film and more like a classic piece of literature.  Ridley does not shy away from making Northup a complex, yet utterly sympathetic character.  The final moments of the film are truly moving, delivering a satisfying, albeit tragic, conclusion for the story of Solomon Northup.

“12 Years a Slave” has all of the ingredients for that of a classic film.  Although some may find it difficult to watch, it is an absolutely necessary viewing experience for American audiences.  Bolstered by a strong director, cast, and script, “12 Years a Slave” is a film that will no doubt stay with you long after the credits roll.

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